Developing a framework

The challenge in devising a framework for National Accounts of Well-being is to match the multiplicity and dynamism of what constitutes and contributes to people’s well-being with what gets measured. Our recommended framework for National Accounts of Well-being is therefore based on capturing:

  • More than life satisfaction. Understanding subjective well-being as a multifaceted, dynamic combination of different factors has important implications for the way in which it is measured. This requires indicators which look beyond single item questions and capture more than simply life satisfaction, the survey question on which much well-being research to date has been based. There are a number of reasons for this, including the multi-dimensional nature of well-being and the errors which are known to arise from using a single question to measure a psychological state. There is also evidence that the specific question on life satisfaction is problematic because it leads people to focus on some aspects of their lives but leave out others, is subject to bias because of its general nature, and is not very sensitive to policy changes. This makes it a very blunt tool on which to base government decisions, and suggests advantages to using a broader set of well-being indicators, of which the constituent parts have clear links to defined policy areas.
  • Personal and social dimensions. A focus on the quality of people’s experiences of their lives might suggest that the predominant concern of National Accounts of Well-being is with people as individuals, aggregating different people’s reports of how they are feeling within themselves and experiencing life from their personal standpoint. But research shows that a crucial factor in affecting the quality of people’s experience of life is the strength of their relationships with others. There is plentiful evidence that feeling close to, and valued by, other people is a fundamental human need and one that contributes to functioning well in the world. Our approach, therefore, advocates a national accounting system which measures the social dimension of well-being (in terms of individuals’ subjective reports about how they feel they relate to others) as well as the personal dimension.
  • Feelings, functioning and psychological resources. The traditional focus on happiness and life satisfaction measures in well-being research has often led to an identification of well-being with experiencing good feelings and making positive judgements about how life is going. Our framework for National Accounts of Well-being moves beyond that to also measure how well people are doing, in terms of their functioning and the realisation of their potential. Psychological resources, such as resilience, should also be included in any national accounts framework and reflect growing recognition of ‘mental capital’ as a key component of well-being.